Redefining the Engine Company

By Christopher Huston

One of the first discussions in the Firefighter I course addresses the fireground functions of various companies. Most texts, manuals, and curriculums define the companies as follows: Engine companies secure a water supply and extinguish the fire. Truck companies secure utilities, set up ladders, and ventilate. Rescue companies are responsible for search, extrication, and providing medical attention.

However, once I finished recruit school and was exposed to how firefighting is really accomplished in suburban and rural America, I soon realized that for a large portion of our nation’s fire service, these descriptions are far from true.

The engine company is the fire service staple, regardless of whether it is an engine company from an urban city or a small rural town. The engine company is typically the first piece of equipment on scene. The crew onboard must be proficient at multitasking since they arrive first and significant time may elapse before additional personnel arrive. Every corner of the fire service has seen changes over the past few years. Whether the change is inadequate staffing, an increase in medical calls, or a decrease in volunteer numbers, the standard responses of yesterday have changed the game. The engine company needs to be redefined.

For the engine company to be successful, firefighters must quickly stretch, charge, and advance a line. The engine crew must work in concert and properly execute its task in a timely manner. Priorities need to be identified, controlled, and mitigated–all with focus, drive, and determination. We are able to control only so many factors at one time. Fireground personnel must react accordingly to do the most good. When the engine company is charged with performing multiple tasks, the outcome for success can decrease.

A competent engine company must perform a primary life search while locating and extinguishing the fire and while obtaining critical information to pass on to the incident commander (IC). In systems where a second engine, rescue, truck, or even medic unit arrives with the first engine, the initial line can focus on fire control. As mentioned before, our world has changed. The redefined engine will have to do more with less, but realize that the safety of our members will have to be our first priority even if this means we do not accomplish the traditional fireground tasks simultaneously. This redefined first engine company may be on its own for some time because of layoffs or brownout or even a lack of recruiting new volunteers. Fireground tasks not performed initially still need to be performed as soon as possible. The primary search is one of them, and performing the primary search is mandatory.

 The primary search is often the first action taken on entry into a fire building,” says John Norman, chief of special operations (Ret.) of the Fire Department of New York.”When manpower is very limited, the primary [search] may consist of no more than the nozzleman looking along the floor under the smoke as he tries to locate the fire.”¹ The initial arriving engine should assume a search, rescue, and fire control configuration. For proper execution, address and perform these several critical actions.

Critical Keys/Actions:

  • Establish working command
  • Water supply
  • Crew size
  • Quickly deployed line
  • Tools
    • Hand tool
    • Thermal imaging camera (TIC)
    • Flashlight
    • Radio

Command. The first arriving unit must assume incident command and transfer when appropriate. The pump operator can take this action, if needed. Keep in mind at this point that you may be monitoring several radio channels. Most often, the engine officer is command and will be on the entry team.

Water supply. A delay in the initial line may occur if water supply is established first. Performing the initial size-up, understanding fire dynamics, and having a clear picture of fire size in comparison to the “box” is vital. Will your booster tank meet the critical application rate? Will it be several minutes before more water is available? Are you capable of using Class A foam to reduce water use? Do you have, train, and understand CAFS? Very few circumstances dictate that we enter a container under fire conditions without a charged hoseline and ample water.

Crew size. The size of your crew will influence speed, execution, and timing of initial operations. Since we are talking about the redefined engine company, we will use a typical small town staffing/response model and assign a three-person team on the initial line. The following is a way the redefined engine company can accomplish primary search: The nozzleman stays on the line while the backup and third firefighter word missing? o off the line to search adjacent rooms/areas if conditions and arrival information warrant. This evolution goes even more smoothly when the backup firefighter uses a TIC. The nozzleman will have assistance in finding the fire and aides in occupant search, and can monitor changing conditions. The third firefighter should be the officer or the IC, for supervision and radio communications. This position can assist with moving the line as well. The third crew member also adds a “pivot” position to assist in corners and stairwells.

Quickly deployed line. Speed is of upmost importance. Is your engine set up for a quickly deployed line that one firefighter can put into service? Several options are available, depending on your engine configuration.

Tools. Perform this evolution sparing little time. Store the tools where you can access them quickly, not inside a cabinet. Tools mounted on the outside of the apparatus allow for “body to the building” selection. Store an ax, a halligan, and a hook externally for quick access.

Flashlight. Every member should carry a personal light and a hand-free light for conducting this initial task. Bring in an additional light to leave at a door to mark a reference point. The light can be left on and pointed into a room; it may be enough to keep the member searching the room orientated.

Radio. Every member on the fireground should have a radio, but this is not always possible; hence, every team will have a radio operator. In the case of a working command, the IC may have to keep the radio on the primary frequency–this is for the units still en route. Another team member should set his radio to the appropriate fireground frequency. Since the working IC will be with the initial team, there is no reason to communicate to one another on the radio. The team may need to talk to the engine while command interacts with dispatch, first-arriving battalions, and the other due companies. Note: Radios will transmit with the volume turned down. Only one team member should have the volume up, to avoid feedback and other interference.

Execution. Think fast and simple. Put the line in service and search the most common areas for occupants. These areas include the main door and main hallways as you make entry and as the line advances to the seat of the fire. Search the adjacent areas like bedrooms, bathrooms, and closets along the way. Once again, slowing down the line to search is based on fire conditions and arrival information from those on scene. The line should stop only minimally, to check conditions and on discovery of fire. Do not pass fire. Circumstances may dictate that you pass a savable life to accomplish fire control. Locating victims is valuable information, although the best tactic may be to leave them in place. Taking the threat away will afford more time to accomplish other tasks. Viable life may be found closer to the fire area. Time spent away from the seat of the fire and rescuing occupants decreases the survivability of those in closer proximity. “Put the fire out, and everything else gets better.” The rescue can be made by incoming units or after fire control. With decreased time until flashover, fire behavior characteristics influenced by ventilation and the increased heat release rates of modern homes, our window within which to perform basic tasks is shrinking.

Ventilation. Today’s modern fire environment has seen drastic changes when compared to even a few years ago. This change comes with new state-of-the-art information. Some camps even feel that these same fire problems existed; but without modern testing, we would not have this understanding. Studies using the latest in fire modeling show us that a ventilation-controlled fire will have a short span until flashover. The trigger for these dynamic fire events is the opening of our main point of entry, the front door. What is happening? A flow-path of high pressure gases (smoke, fuel, products of combustion) seek out the low-pressure opening (the front door). What was once thought as fire seeking oxygen is actually ventilation. This is a critical step in performing search, rescue, and fire control. Ventilation still needs to occur. The placement of the vent hole must be close to the seat of the fire, not behind the hose team. The engineer can take the role of the outside vent man and complete the evolution of coordinated attack and ventilation.

The quick hit.” In recent weeks, the topic of transitional attack has flooded the Web and printed magazines. This mode of operation is not new; it’s simply the context in which it is being used. Because it is labeled as an attack method, it has fallen under scrutiny. Some texts refer to this as an indirect stream application. The controversy stems from the fact that firefighters apply a direct or an indirect stream from a defensive position, then transfer to an interior direct attack. For the purpose of this article, let us look at what my area calls the “quick hit.” The quick hit is just that–hitting the fire with a direct stream from a defensive position to knock a large body that is preventing the initial team from making entry. Recent studies show that direct streams do not push fire; therefore, hitting the fire area for just a few seconds can gain the team headway. For the initial team, this tactic buys time. The nozzle person can flake, prep, and charge the line while the other team members are checking conditions, forcing doors, masking up, and prepping for entry. Making the quick hit keeps the fire in check. Once the team is ready, the nozzleman can move the line to the point of entry. This method, of course, is typically done when the fire area and point of entry are within close proximity. Depending on your jurisdiction and building layout, you should consider making your push close to the fire area. We always train to go through the front door. These habits have been forced by conditioning. Perform a proper 360° size-up, and go in as close to the fire as possible using a quick hit if needed. Control the building and the fire; do not let the fire control you.

Other considerations. Close doors along the way. Prevent fire spread by closing the doors as you search them. If a room cannot be searched, make note of why, and inform command.

Staffing and resources influence the fireground search more than any other element. The initiative lies in the company’s preparing its members and their rig and the crew’s implementing the course of action regarding the initial line. Rehearse advancing, sounding, searching, and communicating to increase efficacy. Having proficiency with hand tools and radios and preparing yourself on scene is critical to timely completion of tasks. Putting the first line in service can do more good on the fireground than any other tactic. Having various methods and styles of fire control only improves the engine company’s ability to succeed.

The traditional engine company role of securing a water supply and stretching the line is still a basic function. However, on the modern fireground, the engine company must simultaneously perform multiple roles while getting water on the fire.–search, rescue, and fire control. The engine company today must be refined and redefined to do more tasks with less than ever before. Therefore, it is essential that your training and standard operating guidelines match what really happens in the street, not in some standard text from a large urban department that has the traditional complement of different companies. It is now up to you to examine your operations and redefine how your engine will respond to these challenges.

Christopher Huston is the training officer for the Bertrand Township Fire Department in Buchanan, Michigan. He also operates the Web site .

¹ Norman, John. Fire Officers Handbook of Tactics. Pennwell / Fire Engineering Books, 2005.


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